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John Ford Retrospective

at the Orson Welles Cinema through June 3

By Tim Hunter

THE TASK of writing critically about John Ford is made considerably easier now that several battles need no longer be fought: Ford is indisputably a giant of world cinema; his best films appeared during the second half of his career (after The Informer and Grapes of Wrath at any rate), and consist largely of the critically neglected late Westerns.

The Orson Welles Cinema acts devotedly and unselfishly by running over 20 of Ford's pictures within the next two weeks. The series includes all of Ford's greatest work, and several films unseen theatrically for years, and indispensable to both Ford and film enthusiasts. Nobody's films are as much fun as John Ford's. Their humor and excitement is exceeded only by a visual and dramatic richness on all levels. Becoming acquainted with Ford is a wondrous process ultimately involving a rediscovery of America through Ford's extraordinary vision. At best, Ford's films redeem America, as Hawks' films redeem 20th century man from the abyss into which he has tumbled. We are better for their vision and insight, greater by virtue of the tradition and myth they have created to support us.

Ford's label in the great film cosmos is wonderfully ambiguous. The term "classical" is tossed around a lot ("classical" is what you say when you know someone is a great film-maker but can't explain why except in literary terms--Hawks being the prime example of a victim of creeping "classicism"). Strictly speaking there are two classical directors, Griffith and Eisenstein, both of whom continue to exert a major influence over all narrative film-making. In one sense all narrative is "classical" in that cutting dependent on continuity of movement is basic montage (two shots put together to imply a nonexistent visual relationship) and consequently follows the teaching of Eisenstein and Griffith. Shooting styles, however, are more varied, and part of Ford's glory lies in the ease with which he employs almost all shooting styles.

Take, for example, the last couple of reels of a minor Ford film, Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Dr. Mudd, unjustly imprisoned on an American Devil's Island, is recruited to stop a Yellow Fever epidemic. He must rally the panic-stricken soldiers, who are shown to us initially in rapid montage of richly lit terrified faces (a characteristic Ford device seen in Four Men and a Prayer, The Fugitive, The Sun Shines Bright and other films, and an example of Eisensteinian Classicism). Next he airs out the sick ward as a windstorm accompanied by lightning flashes begins (expressionism). He takes sick himself and tries to sleep. The master shot of his bedroom stresses angles directed toward the background, Mudd's walk to the bed, then, goes against the dynamics of the frame and emphasizes his physical struggle. This shot cuts to a high angle of Mudd thrashing about on his bed--a dark strip running down the center of the frame surrounded by the grey emptiness of the floor (expressionism approaches surrealism). He rises and, in a stunning melodramatic sequence, directs his men to fire on an American ship in order to force it to land medical supplies on the disease-ridden island (romanticism). He recovers, is freed, and returns home to his family and country home (lyrical Griffith-evoking classicism). American classicism as we know it is reserved for the ending and two early scenes in Mudd's home, in order to create a sense of harmony and domestic tranquillity prior to his imprisonment. The rest of the film is quite different, including also a stylistic foreshadowing of detached neo-realism (the collapse of the first doctor), also of modern optical effects (the focus-pulling from dead Lincoln's face to the texture of the veil placed over it). Ford's stylistic vocabulary is limitless, his films beyond categorization.

FORD'S DRAMATIC vision is simultaneously forthright and elusive, and the interest of these introductory notes is only to mention two characteristics which permeate all his films. First, Ford is a master at the sudden juxtaposition of emotional quantities. Serious scenes will turn into comic ones, then revert suddenly to introspection. The greatness of this is that Ford carries the audience with him totally; we are rarely conscious of these shifts and instead experience them without question or intellectual judgment. In Donovan's Reef (1963)--a good film for examining this--the mood of each scene in the second half shifts and each transition suggests a new depth to the influence of past tradition on the present.

Even Ford's most tragic films (How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers (1956), 7 Women (1966)) are filled with Ford's characteristic singing, folk dancing, and comedy scenes which, as long as they occupy the screen, capture attention to the point of making us forget about the basic story. Ford knows the attentions and moods of people change easily--that purpose can (even must) be put aside for brief periods of time in favor of diversion. Incorporating this, his films inherently have a dimension of staggering realism. But Ford is no realist, and that dimension is infused into a larger and more personal scheme, giving additional richness and validity to the drama and its characters.

Second, Ford abstracts and ennobles dramatic action by formalizing it. An archetypal Ford image from Stagecoach (1939) through 7 Women is the Full Shot of a vast plain or prairie with a horse soldier (or vehicle) traversing it in a rigidly straight line, as if kept to a defined path by invisible walls. To return to our last reel of Shark Island, when Mudd wakes up the cannoneers, they bolt into sitting position on their bunks in unison, as if a single string controlled them all; the sense of formation is carried through to the end when the prison commander and his men visit Mudd in the hospital--they enter the room in military formation, although a realistic dramatic context would render this unnecessary. Ford's universe is highly structured. The symmetries and orders he creates for his characters have such rightness that individual characters assume more force and have more freedom, though confined strictly to Ford's geometries.

If Donovan's Reef best reveals Ford's emotional range, The Sun Shines Bright (1953) is the most obvious choice to illustrate this ordering. The grouping of the townspeople around the levy in the first few shots suggests harmonies confirmed in the unified behavior of the lynch mob and the choir in front of the church. The scenes of Confederate and GAR veterans' meetings emphasize the auditorium corridors, the deliberateness of physical movement through them, and the relationship of the auditorium seats to the main speaker and the flags that surround him. The last reel of Sun Shines Bright contains two of the most stunning sequences in all Ford: the funeral and the victory march that ends the film. The two processions absorb the energy of the people who participate--each person lends his force to the greater whole--and the consequent emotional power of the scenes becomes almost unbearable.

Ford's images, then, are images of idealization. The past is redefined and perfected through his magnificent camerawork and lighting, and through his sense of formal structure and geometric harmony. The result is a combination of memory and myth. How Green Was My Valley and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) are theoretically flashbacks told by men whose experience has been filtered through the traps of time and been idealized in the nostalgic mind. On a large scale, however, Ford does not recreate the past through memory, but creates the memories themselves. The Sun Shines Bright and My Darling Clementine (1946) reveal the basic truth of all the films--that of a great artist giving us a tradition and a past that we can assimilate and make our own.

FOR anyone interested, eleven of the films can be singled out as essential. Steamboat Round The Bend (1935) with Will Rogers is Ford's best thirties film, boasting a magnificent steamboat race that remains one of the most hilarious and breath-taking sequences on film. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is every bit as great and important as everyone says, as is How Green Was My Valley, Ford's most emotionally powerful film. My Darling Clementine (1946), shot in Monument Valley, pits Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday against the Clantons in an OK Corral fight directed the way Earp told Ford it really happened. Wagonmaster (1950) is rarely seen and one of Ford's most personal Westerns. One of the purest joys in all film. The Quiet Man (1952) is a ravishing color film shot in Ireland with the staples of the Ford "stock company": Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Victory McLaglen, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald. The Sun Shines Bright, Ford's deserved favorite of his films, is complex and unfashionable, and one of Ford's four unqualified masterpieces (How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers, Liberty Valance). The Searchers (1956) is the great epic of American film, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance its deepest statement of the lamentable transition to modern society. Donovan's Reef is one of his funniest, while putting an audience through incredible changes. Finally, the strange and wondrous 7 Women, Ford's last film and his darkest, is a chilling vision of apocalypse and the destruction of the order Ford cherished.

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